The Burrowers (2008, directed by J. T. Petty) isn't the first genre film to channel The Searchers. I mean, you can see hints of The Searchers in movies from Star Wars to Taken. It's one of the most influential movies ever made, after all, so it's not a surprise to see it resurface in a horror movie even at this late date. I was thinking about this last night as the credits rolled at the end of the movie, because it seems perverse and funny to me that the two most influential narrative types in the horror movies of the last half century are Westerns (the other is Rio Bravo, by the way, which is the template upon which Night of the Living Dead and its imitators are built). I smiled a bit that I was finding an Nth generation version of this in a horror movie set in the American West, in which the central themes of racism and obsession are reenacted. Hell, it even has something of the same feel for landscapes.
The movie follows the Irishman Fergus Coffey as he searches for the family of his beloved, who have vanished from their Dakota Territory homestead after an apparent Sioux raid. That's the conclusion of the racist Captain Victor, a cavalry officer leading a troop of soldiers in search of those responsible for the disappearances of several families. Two of the Indian fighters tagging along with the expedition, John Clay and William Parcher, have their doubts, especially after witnessing Victor's brutal interrogation techniques. Eventually, Clay, Parcher, and Coffey, along with the extravagantly named Walnut Callahan, break off to pursue their own search, only to discover that it's not Indians who are responsible, but something much, much worse...
There's a lot to like in this movie. The film opens with a Terrence Malick-ish scene of Coffey rehearsing the proposal he plans to make to his beloved's father in the crepuscular light of sunrise, and this strikes the right notes in establishing both the time, place, and culture of the film's setting along with asserting the primacy of the landscape in the film's visual design. The prairie during the day is hostile and desolate; at night, it's downright menacing. Anyone who has ever driven through the Dakotas or Nebraska can tell you that the sheer openness of the American prairie is downright Lovecraftian, and the movie exploits this. It makes for a more attractive film than you might get otherwise. The performances are generally good, too, and it's always fun seeing veteran character actors like Clancy Brown and Doug Hutchison. For some reason, Westerns always bring out the "character" in character actors, and that's what happens here.
Where The Burrowers goes wrong is in its monsters, which remind me a lot of the crab-walking Regan from The Exorcist if she had been crossed with a mole rat, or a downscale version of the parasites dripping off the Cloverfield monster. At a fundamental level, they're a boring, unimaginative monster design, though that's not necessarily a liability. The movie creates these creatures with a mix of practical and CG effects and attempts to disguise the disconnect between these modes by filming them mostly at night. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. The film's climax gives you a good look at them, and their insufficiency as a credible monster crumbles when they are front and center. I think the filmmakers know this, because they put off showing them for as long as they can.
The movie strikes false notes, too, when it gets on its hobby horse about the racism built into Manifest Destiny. Captain Victor, the film's central racist, is practically a cartoon. Interestingly, he's not really depicted as a villain, just as a reprehensible part of the landscape. The interactions with Native Americans are always pitched in the shadow of racism, and some of these conflicts are suggestive of the conflagrations in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, in which the Native American is a terrifying figure in his own right. But just as often, they are victims. This theme is a blunt instrument, and the filmmakers have no qualms about beating the audience over the head with it.
Still, the ending is satisfyingly bleak, with no reunion and no redemption for the survivors.
Current tally: 7 films
First time viewings: 7
Around the web:
Friend of the blog Caroline over at Garbo Laughs is getting back into the swing of blogging with a look at The Unknown, one of your humble bloginatrix's very favorite horror movies.
The Vicar of VHS moves on to The Incredible Melting Man over at Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movies.